Zendesk has released proactive messages – real time notifications on messaging channels such as WhatsApp or SMS or pop-up messages on a website. Whereas previous experiences may have required customers to search for the ‘contact us’ options to open a chat or send a message on WhatsApp, this new feature pre-emptively starts a conversation by sharing relevant information, recommending products, or providing welcome greetings to ask if the customer needs any help.
Once a customer opens the message, an agent or a bot can take the conversation further with either a live agent or a chatbot. Examples range from offering automated self-service based on user behavior and interaction history, to customer service agents proactively reaching out to address any questions if a consumer has a product in their shopping cart for a certain period of time.
I spoke to Jon Aniano, Zendesk's SVP Product for CRM Application, about this shift to proactive engagement and the thinking behind this latest development. Things have come a long way since his conversation with my colleague Phil Wainewright about the move to include messaging as a core component of Zendesk’s customer service offering. Zendesk is now talking about Immersive CX – a more personalized experience tailored to the customer across multiple channels.
One factor that has prompted the push towards an immersive CX is the volume of customer enquiries. According to the 2023 Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report, which included a global survey of nearly 4,800 business respondents, 73% of business leaders have seen measurable increases in customer service requests over the past year, and those requests are set to increase further over the next 12 months. Yet overall first reply times have ballooned 11%, putting even more pressure on call centers and customer service agents. A key part of Zendesk’s Immersive CX concept is built upon automated triggers, rules and conditions using AI – but it’s crucial that brands use these tailored methods appropriately across the whole customer journey. For example, a customer who spent several minutes engaging with a series of messages or questions from a chatbot will be quickly frustrated at the prospect of repeating themselves if they’re transferred to an agent.
Getting the right cadence – first timers versus VIPs
As a consumer who decided to shop online with a cosmetics company and went back to make a repeat purchase, only to receive an outreach message that started with “hey, bestie!”, there’s a fine line between proactive outreach to check in with a customer, and crossing the line from friendly to clingy. With this cringe-making experience still emblazoned in my mind, I asked Aniano about the lessons learned regarding finding the right cadence for proactive messaging. His advice:
Here’s what I would say: start small. Just because you have this tool at your disposal doesn't mean you need to figure out what are the 100 best proactive touch points that I can use to reach out with my customer. It's what are the one or two things that I can do right now that I have enough information and context about my customer to personalize. and that are going to yield from it, if not immediate value, at least information I can use to tune and optimize my proactive outreach, because I think we're dealing with a new muscle for most customers.
When we're talking about proactive in the context of CX, we are all still learning. The customers are still learning what they like, and what they don't like, and so starting small is the biggest piece of advice I can give.”
According to Zendesk research, 77% of business leaders recognize that deeper personalization leads to increased customer retention. So how do you strike the right balance between what is a personal, automated message and an actual person reaching out? One example comes from Spartan Race, a world-renowned lifestyle brand featuring its own gym, television specials, and a retail line of clothing and athletic gear. Aja Varney, Director Global Customer Engagement at Spartan Race, says:
By having an agent reach out to customers proactively to address any questions or other obstacles to purchase (or even just say hello!), we determined our Spartan customer was 60% more likely to purchase than if we did not engage with them. I am extremely excited for this capability to be available within messaging as we switch to offering a more conversational and streamlined experience to our customers.
The goal is to preserve that live access and make sure agents are utilized for those essential interactions while using the more efficient bot for simpler issues. We use a bot to answer the top three or four most common questions that are easy to solve through self-service, while also making sure that we give customers the option to reach a human.”
This makes a lot of sense. Some demographics will always want a human interaction – others will prefer an automated one. Leaving aside the canonical example of resetting your password which can be done in an automated way without having to contact customer service, Aniano put the topic into a different perspective – thinking about the spectrum of experiences and where the value lies for the company, the customer, and the agents. Some proactive engagements are going to be better for the company because it reduces call volume – such as outreach to flag known shipping delays in a certain region:
A certain set of customers are going to say: ‘Okay, I get it. It's not that urgent for me’, and then it's another set of customers are going to want to engage, and so providing an escape valve or an option for customers who feel they need that human connection can often get you a good mix of interactions.
A word of caution at this point:
What we don't want to do is we don't want to offer proactive engagement without having humans ready to answer and engage… That's going to create an extra frustration to a process where there was no frustration before. So, being smart about offering those passive escalation of having the capacity to handle. Those passive escalation is something that our customers are thinking about quite a bit as they turn on proactive engagements.
Changes in CX mindset
Aniano has worked with plenty of vendors in the CX space, and been involved in some large customer service deployments, building out new workflows with new software and new practices. What changes has he seen during that time? He notes that a few years ago, companies would make the decision to invest in customer service, run a big project and go live. Whereas now?
That mindset has completely changed. Customer experience teams, their IT partners, and C-level people who are responsible for customer experience. - they don't like that model anymore. They say ‘Let's pick our vendors. Let's pick our policies. Let's create our CX brand and iterate monthly/ weekly/ daily on the customer experience itself. We may try out a channel one month and realize that it's not great for our customers or our company. We'll take that down and we'll put up a different channel.
Zendesk is a partner that has always had this ethos where you know you need to be able to change your customer experience rapidly. Those companies that have the mindset of continual investment and iteration in the customer experience are the ones who are getting ahead. What do we automate? What do we not automate? How do we continually measure that and then make changes to our automation? Personalization and proactive is the next thing now.”
Pitfalls to avoid
Is there any other advice that Aniano would give to business leaders and informed buyers who are looking to develop both their agents and raise the customer experience now? Stop thinking about customer experience from inside a spreadsheet:
Just sit in the customer's shoes, which sounds very cliché - but design your customer experience from the customer point of view. Spend a day and go through all of your customer service workflows as if you were a customer. Speak with your agents as if you were a customer. When I have a question about my order, what do I do? What is the experience I want to have? What am I willing to wait for, versus get immediately? What experience would give me a better outcome if I talk to somebody over the phone versus talk to somebody over messaging versus talk with a bot. So really force yourself to spend your time there in the customer.
Spend the next day in the shoes of your agents. Spend a day on the contact center floor, or shadow what they're doing and think about all of those interactions you just had as a customer - what's going on on the other side. And how can you make the agent’s life better? These people spend 8-hour-a-day shifts trying to help customers, and they're all really trying to help, and sometimes the tools get in the way. You could really unlock a lot of great customer outcomes by putting yourselves in the swivel chair of your agent and see what small things can unlock really great outcomes there.
Part of the road ahead for businesses with proactive messaging as a goal will involve breaking down the silos between customer service, sales and marketing. People want to be treated as customers, not as transactions or tickets. Senior leaders who are making those decisions have to be able to know their organization from all angles to provide a seamless experience.
There are many nuances behind the headlines of proactive messaging – the capabilities go beyond technology and automation, especially when these immersive experiences span multiple industries and sectors. The immersive experience applies to those inside the organization too – adapting quickly to new ways of working in a connected environment that is geared towards building customer loyalty.